Article by Liam McLean
Four and a half years ago, Lawrence Au returned home from a trip to Japan with a new vision. While visiting a mall attached to the Tokyo Skytree, he came across a floor devoted entirely to restaurants. An advertisement for a green tea café featuring a brilliant image of a bright green Matcha drink caught his eye. The advertisement stunned Lawrence and made him curious. As far as he knew from his experience living in Vancouver, Matcha was sort of a yellowish green or brown colour, not the vivid green he saw in the mall. He decided to go to the café and find out for himself. “I ordered an iced Matcha tea and sure enough it was that colour. And when I tasted it, it was very refreshing, very rich, completely unlike anything I’ve had in Vancouver before,” said Lawrence. “And that’s when I realized what true Japanese Matcha really is and I almost instantly fell in love with it.” The branding and tea culture also left an impression on Lawrence, and he visited Kyoto later on his trip where he was further exposed to the beauty and depths of Japanese green tea history. Returning home from Japan, Lawrence searched everywhere for a similar Matcha experience but was unsuccessful. He realized that the Matcha served here was actually green tea powder and had nothing in common with the authentic drinks he had in Japan. “And so, at that point, I decided to start my own business by recreating the experience that I first had in Japan,” said Lawrence. “That was basically my guiding light: what should I do in creating a brand that would be reminiscent of that experience.” With that goal in mind, Lawrence began on his passionate journey to found Ichiyo’s Matcha Bar and bring the experience of Japanese green tea culture to Vancouver.
Before fully establishing Ichiyo’s, Lawrence needed to take the time to learn about Matcha and how to run a business as an entrepreneur. He started by directly buying his tea from Japan and using Internet resources to learn more about Matcha. “And so, I started, I got a whisk, I got a bowl, and I just bought some tea and I just started trying it, making it myself,” said Lawrence. “When I came back from Japan, I also started looking for opportunities to learn more about Japanese culture. I looked at what programs and events were available at the Nikkei Centre in Burnaby. So, there was some tea ceremony workshops there, so I attended a few of those.” Lawrence is still involved in taking any classes he can and has been attending formal Japanese tea ceremony lessons in the past year, further deepening his appreciation of Japanese culture and tea. Two and a half years ago, Lawrence decided to take the next step forward towards his business and enrolled in some classes at BCIT for marketing, branding, and accounting. “Just to re-educate myself in business and in brand building. At that point, I became serious about it and I also started actively branding,” said Lawrence about his business education. “I hired a brand developer and started coming up with the menu and recipes, and I also contacted an organization called Hawkers Market because they cater to this kind of thing, to food entrepreneurs who are just getting their start in business.” When he officially started, his business was first called Modern Matcha before being renamed to Ichiyo’s Matcha Bar. “I really didn’t like the name, so I was looking for a new name. And that’s when I met my friend Ichiyo. So, I asked her, ‘What does your name mean?’ And she said it means, ‘One leaf.’ Immediately, I realized that’s the perfect name for a tea company, because, after all, all tea is from one leaf. I decided to rename it Ichiyo.” Ichiyo would later join the business and assist Lawrence with developing and growing the Ichiyo’s Matcha Bar brand.
Armed with some preliminary knowledge and a passionate vision, Lawrence’s business started to receive new opportunities and grow shortly after his first experience at the Hawkers Market. His booth was well received by his customers at the market, giving him the opportunity to start a pop-up store at the opening of McArthurGlen. Ichiyo’s was positively received there as well, giving Lawrence the chance to set up a booth at the Vancouver Tea Festival and the Sakura Festival. “And that was the first time that I realized that there really was a market for this. I was expecting it to be maybe a little bit busier than normal than the events that I have done in the past,” said Lawrence about the Sakura Festival, “but it was so busy, the line up was so long, that I actually got into the local Japanese newspaper.” Lawrence was not expecting such a large turnout at the Sakura Festival and did not even have adequate physical order numbers at the time. He quickly revamped his system in time for the Powell Street Festival, an opportunity that then led him to an invitation to attend the Nikkei Matsuri. Through all his experiences, customers have resonated with the genuine and unique experience that Lawrence attempts to create through Ichiyo’s, as well as the high quality and Japanese imported ingredients of his drinks. The positive feedback that he has received from customers about his product has given Lawrence the confidence that his business is worth pursuing as a life passion.
Recently, Lawrence has been running a successful Ichiyo’s booth at the Richmond Night Market. Customers have given him fantastic feedback, with many saying that his drinks are the best Matcha they have tried in all of Vancouver. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so even if I produce something that is very good, I’m always thinking that it could still be better. And so, it was kind of hard for me to have the confidence to really say, you know, that I have the best,” said Lawrence about his reception at the Night Market. “But after receiving numerous comments about how these are the best drinks in Vancouver and the enthusiasm from some of my customers, now that gives me the confidence to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, my product really is good, it really is better than probably anything else you can find in the city at the moment.’” With the great reception throughout all the festivals and markets he has participated in, Lawrence has begun to think about opening a more permanent café location. “I’m not in a huge rush, and because of that I want to make the best decision, make the right decision, rather than being rushed into a maybe less than ideal decision because I need to open a location to make money or something,” said Lawrence. Although finding a location in Vancouver would be challenging and expensive, Lawrence is willing to eventually work towards that goal as long as it meets his requirements for his product and the experience he wants to provide for his customers. His dream space would also enable him to bring more elements of Japanese tea ceremony into his business.
Although he does not have a permanent location, Lawrence has always strived to implement what he has learned about Japanese tea ceremony values and philosophy into Ichiyo’s. The primary goal of his since starting was to recreate the experience he had when he was first introduced to authentic Matcha in Japan, hoping that he can create a genuine and similar experience for his customers. “I’m certainly not qualified to make any general sweeping statements about the meaning or philosophy of tea ceremony, but from a relative outsider, I mean I am a beginner, I would say it centres around harmony, balance, and hospitality. Hospitality is probably the one word I would use to summarize tea ceremony if I had to. There’s a lot of propriety involved in all aspects of the ceremony,” said Lawrence. “[…] It is all centred around promoting a sense of balance and respect and equality.” There is a great appreciation and respect between the roles of host and guest in Japanese tea ceremony, a hospitality that Lawrence promotes through his interaction with customers. “For example, if they are waiting in line, then it’s not very pleasant to wait and do nothing. So, what I have done is that I have actually made very decorative waiting number cards where I’ve put origami paper on one side with a very nice pattern for them to look at, and I’ve also put some trivia questions and some facts about Matcha on the other side,” said Lawrence. By attending to every small element of his business, he strives to show concern for the experience of his customers and hopes to make every aspect of visiting Ichiyo’s enjoyable. Lawrence also incorporates traditional tea ceremony techniques and tools for preparing the tea. “In tea ceremony, we have a waste water receptacle that we call a kensui, so I also have that. I also have my version of a chakin. I also wear a fukusa on my apron,” said Lawrence. “That’s a detail that we see in tea ceremony that I’ve tried to incorporate into my business. There’s a lot of things, but those are just some of them.” Aside from the quality Matcha itself, this dedication to detail helps to give Ichiyo’s a genuine connection to Japanese green tea culture.
As Ichiyo’s continues to grow and Lawrence’s studies advance, he hopes to continue implementing more elements of the Japanese tea ceremony and culture into his business. His future vision of Ichiyo’s will feature a Japanese aesthetic in order to capture an experience reminiscent to his own in Japan. “I would incorporate things like, perhaps, a tatami room and I would have a tasting bar,” said Lawrence about his future vision for his café. “One of the aesthetic philosophies that we find in tea ceremony is called wabi-sabi. Basically, it’s a very rustic, very austere aesthetic, and that’s probably something that I would incorporate as well. But at the same time, I would present a modernized version of it.” He also wishes to continue seriously exploring and studying the Japanese language so that he can further strengthen his own understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture and tea ceremony. “I think that there is so much communication in the language itself, in the way that words are used, that give off a certain sense of propriety that is completely lost if it ever had to be translated into English,” said Lawrence. “So, there’s that authenticity that I don’t really have access to if I don’t know the language.” By learning the Japanese language and deepening his own personal understanding of the culture, Lawrence works towards firmly rooting his business in a profound and venerable tradition while also presenting a modernized version that makes no unreasonable concessions.
Aside from the positive reception and his own goal of recreating an authentic experience, Lawrence finds the motivation for realizing his vision for Ichiyo’s from deep within his own identity. Lawrence was born and raised in Canada, but found that some aspect about Japan struck a deep resonant chord within him. “Even though I was born here, I was raised here, I should for all intents and purposes have fully Canadian ways of thinking and Canadian values. But for whatever reason, the whole time that I lived in Canada, which is my whole life, I never really felt like I belonged. I was just living here even though I was born here,” said Lawrence. “But the first time that I set foot in Japan, there was already this sense of homecoming, even though I’m not even Japanese.” For Lawrence, the Japanese attitude of excellence, their attention to detail, and their sense of propriety and efficiency appealed to him and connected with his personality. The practice of Japanese tea ceremony brings him great satisfaction because it allows him to express who he is. “I think it’s just knowing that pursuing this allows me to be myself. That is the biggest factor that keeps me going,” said Lawrence. “[…] It’s like a fish trying to survive out of water, they’re not going to do very well. But if they’re in their natural habitat, if they’re allowed to do what it is that they’re good at, then they’re most fulfilled. And so, I see that as the same thing. If I was doing something else then I really wouldn’t be doing what I was meant to do. This is something that is very resonate with who I am.”
In the short-term future, Lawrence and Ichiyo’s Matcha Bar will be making a string of appearances throughout the Fall. He will be present at the Nikkei Matsuri again this September and his booth will also be open at the Night Market until it ends in October. Afterwards, he is planning on doing a few workshops in November for the Vancouver Tea Festival. After all of those events are finished, Lawrence is unsure of what he will be attending next, but is open to participating in any future events. “I think I will need a bit of a break, just to catch up with everything else in life as well. After that, we will just take it as it comes,” said Lawrence. Judging by the passion and the drive he showed me during our conversation, I am sure that Lawrence will find great success in the future and will continue to grow his business to new heights while deepening his own understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture and tea ceremony.